Grain alcohol, also known as ethanol, is a time-tested staple ingredient in skincare products. It has a broad history of use in herbal and medicinal preparations, personal care products, and perfumes. Some of the traditional herbal and cosmetic uses for alcohol include extracts, tinctures, toners, aromatherapy oils and fragrances, and as a system of preservation for other products. Given the increased desire for natural products and natural preservation systems in the green beauty marketplace, we’re definitely seeing a resurgence of alcohol as a skincare ingredient, of various sources, from organic and non-GMO to denatured.

In spite of the various ways that grain alcohol is used, there remain common concerns and complaints around this ingredient, which has been called too drying, harsh, or sensitizing. There are, however, types of alcohols, known as fatty alcohols, like cetyl, stearyl, and cetearyl alcohol, that are not irritating to the skin and can be used in small amounts for any skin type. And overall, when used in the proper percentages, alcohol can be less irritating than other preservatives. Don’t confuse the grain alcohol used in personal care products and medicinal preparations with alcohol like vodka and brandy, which is typically 80 proof and not high enough for long-term broad spectrum preservation. Neither are isopropyl or ethyl alcohols from the drugstore substitutes for grain alcohol—these have a place in sanitation and first aid, but not in your skincare regimen. Overall, you want to look for products that use pharmaceutical grade alcohol, 190 or 200 proof, and preferably organic (or source your own if you’re making DIY products). You may also notice that many food-derived sources of organic alcohol— think grape, cane, corn, wheat— are currently being used in skincare.

To broaden your understanding of alcohol as an ingredient, here are our top pros and cons of using it in skincare preparations:

The pros of alcohol as a skincare ingredient:

  • Alcohol is an effective solvent for herbal and botanical extracts.
  • Alcohol works well as a component in a natural preservation system.
  • Alcohol can be used for short-term preservation in many DIY products.
  • Alcohol is less sensitizing than many other natural preservatives when used appropriately and in the correct percentages.
  • Alcohol may increase the penetration and/or absorption of certain ingredients.
  • In low percentages, alcohol may help remove excessive dirt, debris, and sebum in a cleanser or toner.

The cons of alcohol as a skincare ingredient:

  • Top quality, pharmaceutical grade organic alcohol is expensive and can raise the price of products that contain it.
  • Alcohol can be drying and irritating to skin when used over 20-25% concentration in products.
  • Alcohol can strip the skin’s lipid barrier and cause reactive sebum over-production in some skin.
  • Not all alcohol is created equal and is appropriate for topical skincare use; beware as not everyone knows the difference and uses this ingredient properly.
  • Alcohol is not always strong enough to be effective when used alone as a preservative.
  • Overuse/over-exposure/high concentration of alcohol within a product can cause skin sensitization.

CommentWe want to hear from you!

Do you use skincare products containing alcohol on your skin or the skin of your clients?

What types of alcohols do you prefer?

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